Only half of all UK graduates go on to a career related to their major. Uncovered in a survey conducted by Professor AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities, this startling statistic highlights one of the fundamental issues in modern higher education.
Research-intense university departments rush to develop students in a narrow speciality area with the intention of training them in a prospective career in their fields. In the past, this approach would produce high conversion rates from students to alumni garnering international accolades for groundbreaking research in their disciplines. However, this is no longer the case.
As the percentage of the population entering higher education continues to increase, the nature of universities and their roles have changed. In a survey conducted by Bright Network, 52% of students entered university with the intention of improving their career prospects, and only 35% chose to attend as they had a passion for their degree subject. Perhaps more importantly, almost half of all students felt that their university did not help equip them for the world of work.
After having become competent with the tools of a single discipline, graduates find themselves in career paths that are entirely divergent from the knowledge and skills they had previously spent years sharpening. Consequently, many find themselves forced into positions where they have no fundamental advantages and are required to retrain and readapt to their roles. This in turn has reinforced the idea of the “skills gap” widely expressed by employers.
Graduates therefore must grapple with a university education that has inadequately prepared them for their work-life, and which has incurred a heavy financial burden, with the stresses imparted by the skills mismatch. Such discontent plays into the satisfaction-performance relationship in university-level education and in their later careers.
From the perspective of the ancient universities of the UK, the solution is not simple. Adapting to the times would mean a shift in their primary purpose, and drastic upheaval in the ingrained processes in their institutions. Luckily, the solution may simply be found through student power.
Student societies have been a vital part of UK higher education for centuries. Britain’s oldest continuously running student society, the Oxford Union, dates back to 1823, but that is not to say that many historical organisations (such as the Royal Society) may have in fact had their roots as student-led movements.
The hallmarks of student societies are that they are voluntary, student-led, self-organised groups united under a common interest. Many of these organisations operate in such a manner that is capable of superseding the highly bureaucratic processes that restrain traditionally established university institutions. Coupled with access to the university’s resources, student societies have untapped potential towards converting student passion into valuable impact.
Moreover, student societies provide the breeding ground for the soft skills necessary to succeed in the working world. Maintaining and growing these organisations requires the development of a wide variety of skills and experiences that are beyond what is provided by the university’s curriculum.
As an activity that sits alongside formal academic activities, these organisations can not only enable future success but also enhance academic studies. One prominent comparison is that drawn among scientists. Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or another type of performer.
In general, those who have not made creative contributions to their field lack aesthetic interests outside their narrow area. Dean Keith Dimontin observed, “rather than obsessively focus[ing] on a narrow topic,” creative achievers tend to have broad interests. “This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
It is clear that student societies play an important and intrinsic role in supporting the development of students at university and in enabling future success. However, in more recent times, such a role has been further expanded through the development of career-orientated societies.
Organisations like King’s Business Club, which focus on enabling students to discover their industry of passion and provide the much-needed opportunity to develop practical experience, directly resolve the employment challenges that lay at the heart of education and modern society. In the case of King’s Business Club, their success can be measured by their significant proportion of alumni who now serve as c-class executives, partners, and successful founders.
Despite these achievements, student societies are still limited by the scope of their respective universities. They are bound by the talent that they attract, the reputation of the institution and the allocation of resources by the university to support these organisations.
Ove Arup remarked in his key speech that, “… a structure is generally a part of a larger unit, and we are frustrated because to strive for quality in only a part is almost useless if the whole is undistinguished, unless the structure is large enough to make an impact on its own.”
Among many universities, there seems to be little to no recognition towards the contributions of their most significant student societies. These organisations are champions of their institutions, and should in turn be treated in kind.
However, it is equally important for student organisations to recognise the power and opportunities from which they can harness from the wider student body. Intrinsically they are defined by their provision of unique and unrivalled experiences, ones that ultimately help to cultivate and nurture talent. In recognising their wider responsibilities, student societies become the key to unlocking their university’s future.